On the Buffalo Sabres\' bench, from the left, Tyler Myers, Marc-Andre Gragnani, Jordan Leopold and Mike Grier watch the final action inthe closing minute in the third period in Game 7 of a first-round NHL Stanley Cup playoffs hockey series, with the Philadelphia Flyers, Tuesday, April 26, 2011, in Philadelphia. The Flyers won 5-2. (AP Photo/Tom Mihalek)
BUFFALO, N.Y. - The Buffalo Sabres' season is suddenly over, which means owner Terry Pegula's job is just beginning.
In two months since purchasing the Sabres, the Pennsylvania billionaire provided the franchise direction while re-energizing its fans, who have begun referring to Buffalo as "Pegula-ville."
Pegula's presence and enthusiasm were credited for playing a role in the Sabres' remarkable second-half run to clinch a post-season berth. Turns out, it wasn't enough to get them past the first round of the playoffs, as Buffalo dropped a 5-2 decision in Game 7 to Philadelphia on Tuesday.
It was a loss that left the Sabres disappointed, especially after blowing a chance to end the series in Game 6 on Sunday, when they squandered a two-goal lead in a 5-4 overtime loss.
"What hurts the most is we had our chance," goalie Ryan Miller said Tuesday. "Chances don't come around as often as you think, so you have to take advantage."
That leaves the Sabres preparing for an off-season under a new owner with deep pockets, a willingness to spend and a sole stated objective of delivering Buffalo a championship.
Pegula's influence can't be underestimated.
He began placing his stamp on the Sabres at the trade deadline, when he approved the team's acquisition of forward Brad Boyes—and the US$4 million left on his contract next season—in a deal with St. Louis.
Pegula is expected to become more involved in overseeing the Sabres' approach to free agency, as well. The Sabres are expected to be active in adding to their roster this summer. And they also have numerous decisions to make regarding their own free agents.
Buffalo has eight players eligible to become restricted free agents. It's a group that includes forward Drew Stafford, who scored a career-best 31 goals, and goalie Jhonas Enroth, who is anticipated to gain an expanded role next year as Miller's full-time backup.
The Sabres also have seven players eligible to become unrestricted free agents. It's a group that includes underperforming and injury-prone centre Tim Connolly, as well as respected veteran forwards Mike Grier and Rob Niedermayer.
Another issue is re-signing coach Lindy Ruff, who declined an offer to have his contract extended by Tom Golisano before the former owner sold the team. Sabres president Ted Black said last month that he's confident Ruff will be re-signed.
Ruff is the team's winningest coach, and has provided no indication he's interested in going elsewhere. He's been particularly impressed by Pegula.
"He's a man with tremendous passion for this team, and Buffalo in general," Ruff said, two weeks ago. "What more can you ask for?"
Pegula's passion has been infectious since his opening news conference in February, when he first shared his vision to win by saying: "From this point forward, the Buffalo Sabres' reason for existence will be to win the Stanley Cup."
And he repeated his desire as recently as two weeks ago, telling a gathering of Sabres alumni and fans, "Let's see if we can get this Cup thing over with quickly."
The Sabres fell short, but showed over the final half of the season that their cupboard is not bare.
Counted out in December, Buffalo went 29-11-6 over its final 46 games—and 16-4-4 after Pegula took over—to finish seventh in the East. The Sabres then showed resolve in providing a scare to the second-seeded and Atlantic Division-champion Flyers, before finally running out of steam.
"It is tough right now," forward Paul Gaustad said. "But I am proud of everybody for what we accomplished."
Pegula's bid to rebuild the Sabres includes transforming the franchise's once cost-conscious reputation. Buffalo was knocked for its failure to retain key players after losing former co-captains Chris Drury and Danny Briere to free agency in 2007, and core defencemen Toni Lydman and Henrik Tallinder to free agency last year.
With the Sabres' season over, plans are now being finalized to begin a major overhaul to improve and expand the team's locker-room and player area ina bid to make the team more player-friendly. Work is expected to begin in early June.